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AAA Traveler Worldwise | Travel Inspiration
Discover The Great Lakes In Luxury WIth Viking River Cruises


A vast expanse of glistening water surrounded the cruise ship as sunset approached. Outside on an upper deck, passengers sipped pre-dinner cocktails while discussing the day’s excursions. The breeze was warm, and the water’s myriad blues, greens and grays called to mind the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.      

But these were no far-flung waters; we were on Lake Huron, off the coast of Michigan.      

My journey aboard Viking Cruises’ Polaris started and ended in the Great Lakes, the world’s largest surface of fresh water, covering 94,000 square miles over five interconnected lakes straddling the border of eight US states and the Canadian province of Ontario. Collectively, lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie provide more than 9,000 miles of shoreline. It’s a water system that links outstanding natural wonders, world-class cultural institutions and enough small town ports in both the US and Canada to give travelers a look beyond city centers.      

With its 15-day Great Lakes Collection itinerary, Viking is the only major cruise line that takes passengers to all of the Great Lakes in one cruise. My trip started in Toronto on Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, and ended in Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area.      

“With historic canals that are engineering marvels, cities with thriving arts and culture, and unmatched wilderness, this is a phenomenal region of North America that may be familiar to many—but few have had the opportunity to explore,” says Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking.      

The 664-foot Polaris (like its sister ship Octantis) carries up to 378 passengers and 256 crew, some of them scientists conducting research in the Great Lakes.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Photo by Joe Hendrickson/Stock.Adobe.comThe Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Photo by Joe Hendrickson/      

Shore excursions explore the population centers that developed around the Great Lakes, with visits to attractions such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit. Small towns like Canada’s Silver Islet and Michigan’s Alpena are defined by their proximity to the lakes. These are places where you can buy T-shirts touting the lakes as “unsalted” and “shark-free” but also where billion-year-old Precambrian rocks cover the shoreline.    

I know those shoreline rocks in Silver Islet are more than a billion years old because a Viking scientist with a doctorate in geology told me so. The science component on Viking’s Great Lakes cruises sets it apart from other lines. Among other scientific endeavors, Viking has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Octantis and Polaris are official weather stations.
Expedition crew release an official NOAA weather balloon. Photo by Terri ColbyExpedition crew release an official NOAA weather balloon. Photo by Terri Colby

About once each week, in coordination with other stations around the world, scientists on board release an official NOAA weather balloon. Interested cruise passengers head to the top deck to watch the balloon release, with coffee and a countdown before the sphere heads skyward to join balloons released simultaneously worldwide to aid in weather forecasts. Later in the day, you can head to the science lab to watch the data arrive.

Viking research also looks at the Great Lakes’ water quality and ecosystems. Geologists and ornithologists present lectures on board and lead tours on shore.
A day trip to Niagara Falls is a much-anticipated excursion. Photo by Terri ColbyA day trip to Niagara Falls is a much-anticipated excursion. Photo by Terri Colby      

Polaris’ “water toys” give a more up-close educational experience of the Great Lakes. The stars of the show are two yellow submarines named George and Ringo (in homage to the Beatles), inside which passengers dive into the depths of the Great Lakes. There is also a fleet of kayaks for guided paddles, inflatable Zodiacs that staff can maneuver close to shore, and military-style special operations boats (SOBs) that turn on a dime and move fast for traveling farther from the ship.    

Passengers who want to take a submarine ride must attend a training session, pass a balance test, and be weighed so that the crew can calculate the weight distribution of the sub passengers and allot each person a specific seat on a specific submarine dive.      

I was a little nervous but excited as my scheduled submarine dive neared. Unfortunately for me, maintenance issues canceled the submarine outings for that day. The safety-first policy makes sense, of course, but I was disappointed.    

That disappointment didn’t last long, though, because I took full advantage of the ship’s other water toys. I especially enjoyed the 12-passenger SOBs that zip around the water, sometimes sending spray into the air and passengers into joyous shrieks.    

One day, when our SOB captain spotted a bald eagle in the treetops near Silver Islet, he got close enough for us to take pictures. Then, when he headed back to the ship, he added a little zigging and zagging just for fun. As one crew member jokingly said, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not a ride you can get at Disneyland.”
The big ship is nearly always in sight when you’re on a Zodiac. Photo by Terri ColbyThe big ship is nearly always in sight when you’re on a Zodiac. Photo by Terri Colby      

After Polaris had passed through the Welland Canal connecting lakes Ontario and Erie, we stopped on the Canadian side to visit Niagara Falls. I’ve been to Niagara Falls before, but it’s always exhilarating to see the powerful waterfalls and take a boat ride to feel the spray on your face.    

When we docked in the small town of Alpena, Michigan, my day’s excursion took me on the calm waters of Lake Huron with a local fishing guide. Our small group hauled in six lake trout and one walleye, each weighing about 10 pounds.   

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Back at the dock, the captain of the fishing boat took our catch to be cleaned while we headed to a restaurant in town where a chef primed us with salads and drinks as we waited for the fish to arrive. Once the captain delivered the fresh fillets, the chef took over, creating an outstanding lunch. He topped our fish with a sauce of sun-dried tomatoes, capers and dill, and paired the fish with local asparagus and a brussels sprouts, potato and garlic-butter hash.

Other excursions included museums, distillery and winery tours, and even a trip to Wisconsin’s Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers professional football team. Many of the options, particularly in Canada, were active pursuits, including bicycling and hiking through forests and along rocky coastal terrain. One day during our time in Georgian Bay, the ship arranged a barbecue lunch at a scenic private lodge adjacent to Baie Fine, one of the world’s largest freshwater fjords.
Comfortable lounge areas offer books, puzzles and board games. Photo courtesy of Viking CruisesComfortable lounge areas offer books, puzzles and board games. Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises


While built for harsh conditions and exploration, the Polaris was also designed for luxury, with a spa, specialty restaurants and spacious common areas featuring a wide selection of books. Each stateroom has panoramic drop-down windows, king-size beds and roomy bathrooms with heated floors.

Luxury carried through to the onboard experience, from the food—lobster tail and beef fillet on my first night aboard set the culinary tone for the cruise—to the entertainment—outstanding musicians enlivened the evening lounge area, and educational lectures in the auditorium were always well attended.

Like all Viking staterooms, this Junior Suite has a drop-down window. Courtesy of Viking CruisesLike all Viking staterooms, this Junior Suite has a drop-down window. Courtesy of Viking Cruises

With varied port excursions, thrilling up-close explorations on the water and unexpected natural wonders, a Great Lakes cruise delivers exceptional experiences. Taking it all in aboard a luxury Viking ship makes the trip all the sweeter.


In 2024, 15-day Great Lakes Collection cruises aboard Viking’s Octantis or Polaris expedition ships run late May through late September. Viking also offers eight-day Great Lakes itineraries. Book your cruise through your local AAA Travel Advisor or by calling 866-222-1357.